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The Finds that Tie Us

Within the space of a few weeks highway construction and a family’s living room renovations have brought to light two ancient pools of faith in the Judean Mountains that reveal love of heritage – and kindred traditions.

I never get tired of it – that the ordinary magnificence of daily life thousands of years ago lives down the road from me.  This time, it’s a newly discovered Jewish ritual bath on a mountain of Judah and a baptistery in a valley over the horizon, which remind us of the people who walked here before us;  people who shared – and still share – more than we sometimes imagine.

Mikveh discovered under an Ein Karem living room. Photo by Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA

Mikveh discovered under an Ein Karem living room. Photo by Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA

According to tradition, Ein Karem is the “village of Judah” where Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant (Luke 1:29–35).  You may recall spending time with me in the tranquil courtyard of Ein Karem’s Church of the Visitation. There, thanks to what I learned years ago from Sister Joan Cook, I love to explore the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46–55), together with Hannah’s praise song (1 Sam. 2:1–10) delving into the ways the lives of these women link the Old Testament and the New.

Mary and Elizabeth, from a painting in the Church of the VIsitation, Ein Karem.

Mary and Elizabeth, from a painting in the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem.

It was from Ein Karem last week that media reports emerged of a family renovating their home and finding a 2,000-year-old ritual bath – beneath their living room! Experts say the large rock-hewn miqveh was made in careful accordance with Jewish laws governing water purification. Among the finds inside were pottery vessels dating to the time of the Second Temple (first century CE) and signs of a fire that may be have occurred during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE) . Stone vessels, of the type known to have been used particularly by Jews, were also found.

I was impressed with the way the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district archaeologist Amit Re’em was quoted on the radio news report I heard about the find. He said it was more proof that the village was a Jewish community 2,000 years ago, and he reminded Israeli listeners how important Ein Karem was in Christian tradition as the birthplace of John the Baptist, connecting our traditions as they should be connected.

The owners of the house told the press that their strong feeling of the historic value of what they had found and their civic duty trumped misgivings about what would happen after they reported the find. (I wonder if they feared they would have to make their house a national park!) And so they contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority, and, as they were quoted in an IAA statement:  “Representatives of the IAA arrived and together we cleaned the miqwe. To our joy and indeed to our surprise, we found them to be worthy partners in this fascinating journey.”

Miqveh on the mountain, baptistery in the valley, just another day at the IAA

Ritual immersion goes back to the Bible (in Leviticus and in Mark 7:4 for example; for a more symbolic take, see Psalms 26:6) and came into Christianity as baptism, as you may have learned in Bible study. Many such installations began as natural springs, such as Ein Karem (“spring of the vineyard”) and the layer spring, Ain Naqa’a (“spring of the pool”*),  next to where the baptistery was found. And that brings me to the other find I want to share with you. It’s also a water purification installation – this time, a baptistery – discovered during highway construction in a valley just beyond my own Judean Mountains home. I drive through the cloud of construction dust at that interchange at least three times a week, and one day some weeks ago I noticed that work had stopped, a few storage containers had been brought there, and the Israel Antiquities Authority flag was flying. The next thing I knew, the IAA had announced that a church had been discovered dating back to Byzantine times (fourth–seventh centuries).  Among the finds the IAA salvage dig unearthed was a fine cross-shaped baptistery in one corner of the church, surrounded by a mosaic floor.

Baptistery found during highway work near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

Baptistery found during highway work near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

Oil lamps, coins, glass vessels and abalone shells were all found here; archaeologists believe it was a stop for pilgrims making their way between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along “highway 1” – as it was some 15 centuries ago.  The road went through what is now my neighboring town of Abu Ghosh, where Roman-period remains include a milestone, now incorporated into an outer wall of one of the most beautiful churches in the country, marking (one of the sites of) Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35).

Before the baptistery was covered up to preserve it, the IAA took people on tours to see it, including a special trip for members of our community of Har Adar.

It’s finds like these, one beneath a modern home attesting to Jewish water immersion rites in the hometown of John the Baptist, and the other alongside an ancient-modern highway – that recall and reinforce bonds bridging faith and time.

*Thanks to my colleague Hassan Amar for the Arabic translation of Ain Naqa’a

 

Oil lamp found by IAA archaeologists in the baptistery near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

Oil lamp found by IAA archaeologists in the baptistery near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

From South Carolina to the Northern Sea of Galilee

The perpetrators of the vicious hate crime against the historic church at Tabgha are the ones who are the idol worshippers

It’s not the same, good people will say to me. There’s no connection between the arson attack on the historic Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes on the Sea of Galilee and the murderous rampage at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. All religions and races have fanatics; there are lunatics everywhere, good people will say.

But it doesn’t take a much closer look to see the line between the hate crime in Charleston early on Wednesday evening U.S. time, and  the hate crime on the Sea of Galilee early Wednesday morning Israel time; and it might be a straighter one than many good people wish to imagine. The thought is almost too chilling to bear: In a place where they burn church buildings (and hundreds of books, according to the media), lives could someday be snuffed out, to paraphrase the poet.

Storage rooms, office space, roof beams, wooden doors and a reception room of the church were torched beyond repair; a 19-year-old tourist and a 79-year-old volunteer were slightly injured from smoke inhalation, the media reported. Graffiti was also spray painted, in Hebrew, the holy tongue, on the wall: Elilim khrot yikhartun.

This phase is from a prayer that observant Jews repeat three times a day, known as the “Aleinu.” It begins: “It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to acclaim the greatness of the One who forms all creation.” It then goes on to state: “For God did not make us like the nations of other lands, and did not make us the same as other families of the Earth. God did not place us in the same situations as others, and our destiny is not the same as anyone else’s.” Later on it says: “Therefore we put our hope in You, Adonai our God, to soon see the glory of Your strength, to remove all idols from the Earth, and to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world…”

Elilim khrot yikhartum means “completely cut off all false gods.”

The perpetrators are the idol worshippers. These few extremists are the ones with the false gods. The idol worshippers are also those who teach them that this act – so fundamentally wrong – is fundamentally right.

Just hours after the fire, 16 yeshiva students were arrested on suspicion of involvement. The police were unable to tie any of them to the crime, and they were all released. But would anything have changed even if they had been charged? Churches and mosques in this country have been suffering for years now from increasing acts of vandalism – 17 Christian and Muslim places of worship in the past three years, according to Haaretz. But charges have yet to be brought against anyone. Will this change now?

The Israeli police recently arrested dozens of people involved in organized crime. The police and the Shin Bet security service are experts at finding the people who plot, who throw stones, who steal computer files from the army, who kidnap and murder. Many have been charged and punished for their crimes. Surely, this spate of vicious vandalism is a challenge they can meet just as well.

Let us urge the authorities: Find the perpetrators, and weed out the so-called rabbis who teach these travesties. They are so few – among so many people of all faiths in this land and around the world who show us daily and hourly how to love our fellow humans. Prosecute those few extremists to the fullest extent of the law. That seems to be the only way they will learn one of the most basic tenets of our faith and culture:  In the ancient words of Rabbi Hillel:  “Do not do unto others what is hateful unto you. All the rest is commentary; go and learn.”

Good people will speak, good people will write. But that’s really nothing. And we all know what happens when good people do nothing.

Where the Language Meets the Land

In honor of the holiday, here are some Hebrew expressions to share with members of your Bible study group – they’ll love learning them!

At Shavuot/Pentecost our holy days once again occur in tandem, as they did on Passover. And of course, it’s more than just the dates on the calendar. Pentecost tells the sacred story of a unique global convergence of languages in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Shavuot, the end of the period known as the Counting of the Omer, has come to mark the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai. It’s also is the time we read the story of Ruth, a woman from another religion and culture, no less than another world in those days, who obstinately entwined her fate with ours; Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David and this, too, is part of the bridge of shared tradition that we work to strengthen.

Ruth, harvesting in the fields of Boaz, detail from a painting by Oleg Trabish. Courtesy: Palphot.

Ruth, harvesting in the fields of Boaz, detail from a painting by Oleg Trabish. Courtesy: Palphot

Another tradition of the Shavuot holiday is an intensive night of Bible study. And so, of all directions I could go this time, I hope this blog will be a gift with value if you love the Hebrew word, like I do. You can build entire Bible studies just around these and many others expressions that I’ll save for another time. And as I did in my blog on Hulda’s tomb, I invite you to contact me and share some some of the biblical expressions you’ve come across that we still use; I’d love to publish them here.

As in any language, “lost in translation” can be a problem with Hebrew.  Hebrew is regarded by some as a simple language because it’s built on roots, as your Hebrew teacher may have explained. That means that once you know one word you know many. But sometimes roots grow in unexpected directions, don’t they? My favorite example comes from an article I recently edited, where the very erudite academic author wrote that he had arrived at his conclusions by “crucifying the information.”  Luckily, my knowledge of Hebrew kicked in, and it took me only the briefest “whaaaa?” moment for me to realize that he actually meant cross-referencing the information! The connection is in the three-letter root tz – l- v which in Hebrew’s economic way, give us crucify, cross reference, crossroad, and many other terms.

But back to Hebrew expressions. Many ancient expressions are still used both in modern Hebrew and in English. Here are some of these and how we use them now:  “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9) – ho-hum, been there done that; “double-edged sword” (Psalms 149:6; Prov. 5:4, Heb. 4:12) – hey, watch out, that could come back to haunt you; “by the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20) – whew, that was a close call; and “scapegoat” ­– pin it on some poor guy and head for the hills (Lev. 16:21–26).

Two expressions, still used in Hebrew but that never crossed the translation divide, come from the land itself. I thought of both of them on the trip I am fortunate enough to drive every week now, through some of the most evocative countryside in Israel – to the Jezreel Valley village of Kfar Yezekiel to visit my new grandbaby, Dan.

China and Sinai

 This one doesn’t come from the Bible, but the source is a way to enrich your Bible study; it’s downright cool to be able to drop something into the discourse like “Well, according to the medieval commentator Rashi…”:

The expression is based on verses in the Torah portion we read a few weeks ago: Leviticus 25:1–2. “The Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai: ‘Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must observe a Sabbath to the Lord.’”

The sign reads: “Here we also keep the Sabbath of the Land”  Mount Gilboa is in the background. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The sign reads: “Here we also keep the Sabbath of the Land.” To the east, behind the sign, you can see Mount Gilboa in the background. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As I pass the Megiddo Junction, with Mount Gilboa on my right and the Hill of Moreh straight ahead, I notice a sign put up haphazardly in the field, flanked by grain fields, another symbol of Shavuot, ripening under the spring sun: The sign, surrounded by weeds, says: “This field keeps the Sabbath of rest for the land.” Perhaps surprisingly to some readers, this is not the norm in the Holy Land; hence, the signs that have popped up here and there during this sabbatical year.

The Hebrew word for the “Sabbath of the land” is shmitah.  The expression I want to share with you is  ma inyan shmita etzl Har Sinai? That means “what does the sabbatical of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” (It’s catchier in Hebrew, trust me.) The abovementioned Rashi, scholars say, asked the question because he wondered why, when the Bible says all the commandments were given from Sinai, this one was singled out as having been given from Mount Sinai (Lev. 25:1). Was it more important than the others? Or was it to say that it is just as important as all the others, even if it doesn’t seem applicable to everyone at all times in all places in the world?

Wild barley ripening near Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Wild barley ripening near Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

And so, when Hebrew speakers wonder what in the world one thing, anything, has to do with another, they ask: “What does the sabbatical of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” (I date myself by recalling a parallel saying: “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China” but actually, since the price of everything in China now has to do with everything in the world  I guess we need a different expression anyhow.)

Adding insult to injury, in a really, really bad way

 The last leg of my weekly journey to grand-Dan takes me past the fascinating biblical archaeological site of Tel Jezreel. Then comes a winding bit of road that dips right down to the valley floor. On the right is a rather jarring sight  – a sort of ski slope, complete with artificial snow and a ski-lift –  a creative attempt by local entrepreneurs to get folks to spend more time and money in the valley after they’ve run out of biblical sites to explore, countryside restaurants to enjoy and hikes to take. Right down the road from the ski slope is the likely location of the vineyard that Queen Jezebel goaded her husband Ahab into stealing from its rightful owner, the hapless Naboth (1 Kings 21). Not only did he steal it, the Bible says, but Jezebel had Naboth framed for blasphemy and executed. Well, along came the prophet Elijah with chilling words that to this day Hebrew newspapers and pundits use when they want to say that so-and-so (usually a politician) has done something not only dastardly, but then doubled up on the dastardliness. The expression is: Haratzakhta vegam yarashta, which means:  “Have you killed and also taken possession?” “Insult to injury,” the equivalent expression in English, pales in comparison, don’t you agree?

 

The Jezreel Valley floor, not far from the likely site of Naboth’s vineyard as seen on a hazy spring day from from Tel Jezreel. Photo:  Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The Jezreel Valley floor, not far from the likely site of Naboth’s vineyard, as seen on a hazy spring day from Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Your kids and grandkids will enjoy learning about Hebrew language and expressions in Teach it to Your Children, How Kids Lived in Bible Days.

 Read more about Jezebel in  Women at the time of the Bible.

 Read more about Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks in Food at the time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper

 

Beyond The Dovekeepers

 

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman tells the story, according to its blurb, of what four women brought to Masada. Its premier last month as a miniseries gives me the perfect opportunity to tell you more about my novel, The Scroll, a unique take on events as I imagine them, not only on that tragic, barren Judean plateau – but far, far beyond; events that continue to impact our lives to this day.

 

My book cover, showing the Judean Desert where the actual scroll on was discovered, and the writing on the scroll Warning! Spoiler! Notice the hint of the woman’s figure over which the scroll is superimposed...as she leaves the cave.

My book cover, showing the Judean Desert where the actual scroll  the book is about was discovered, and the writing on the scroll. Warning: Spoiler! Notice the hint of the woman’s figure over which the scroll is superimposed…as she leaves the cave. Design: Emotive studio

Two weeks ago I visited daughter Nili and her husband Ami for the first time in their new home in the veteran community of Kfar Yehezkel in the Jezreel Valley. Thrilled is the word – at the birth of their first baby, and our first grandson, that they’ve come back to live in Israel after eight years in the wilds of Tucson Arizona and…of course, thrilled that from their back porch I can see the heights of Mount Gilboa where the Israelites battled the Philistines, Tel Jezreel, where Queen Jezebel preened and died, the spring where Gideon chose his few good men; in short, Scripture-steeped scenery wherever I look.

 

But when the sun dipped behind Jezreel and night fell at Nili and Ami’s little home…I admit it, the charms of their new, big-screen TV beckoned.  And Nili, one of my most loyal fans, said to me: “Ima, guess what’s on! That miniseries about that other book about women from Masada! Let’s watch!”

 

“That other book” – only the unofficial president of The Scroll’s unofficial fan club would call it that – is The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman’s novel about women and Masada. Lately I’ve seen it on the reading list of tour groups who visit Masada as, I’m pleased to say, so is The Scroll, my novel about one particular woman of Masada, her fateful choices and those of her descendants.

In The Scroll, a fateful document speaks differently to each generation. Detail of a drawing by Amelia Verbeke.

In The Scroll, a fateful document speaks differently to each generation. Detail of a drawing by Amelia Verbeke.

 

The historian Josephus’ enigmatic mention of the women survivors of Masada has given rise to several books over the years. The first one I ever read, back in the ‘70s, was called “The Voices of Masada,” and I never forgot it. Authors who have explored this theme usually tour Masada in preparation for using its archaeological remains as a backdrop. I feel particularly blessed to have visited Masada hundreds upon hundreds of times, studied it for decades and told its story to thousands of people right on the spot where it all happened. But it was once I learned about the amazing discovery of an ancient scroll in the 1950s in a Judean Desert cave – not at Masada and years before the Masada excavation – that I knew this was the story I wanted to put down in writing.

The actual ancient document on which my novel, The Scroll, is based. Dateline, Masada, just before its fall. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The actual ancient document on which my novel, The Scroll, is based. Dateline, Masada, just before its fall. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The document discovered is a divorce decree, which mentions the name of Masada, a date – before its fall – and the names of the husband and wife. My book is based on that scroll and on these people – real people! Who were they? Why did they divorce? What happened to them afterward, and how in the world did that document get from Masada to a cave east of Bethlehem were it was eventually unearthed?

The Dovekeepers, its PR says, tells about what certain women brought to Masada. The Scroll is about what other women took away with them – and that’s only the beginning. The Scroll will introduce you to the three generations I imagine descended from one of the women who survived the inferno and how she – and her descendants – faced the cruel and unremitting challenges of those times, all the way down to the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

As you read The Scroll, you’ll be right there in your mind’s eye with my heroine (I had a different visual image in my mind before The Dovekeepers movie…I think it was actress Jenifer Connolly… but fine, now I can only picture her as Cote de Pablo) – from holy Jerusalem to Masada, to the worldly ports of Caesarea and Alexandria, to the bustling, multicultural metropolis of Beit Guvrin in the Judean lowlands, to tiny Bethlehem and magnificent Sepphoris,  back to Jerusalem and on to the oasis of Ein Gedi. You will get to know not only the heroine, her mother, her son, and her granddaughter, but the world as it was then, peopled by Jews, pagans and the first Christians with all the vastly complex interactions that so profoundly affects who we are today.

Click here to purchase

 

Cote de Pablo – as in NCIS, she plays a nice Jewish girl who ends up in an unexpected role…and thanks to this casting coup in The Dovekeepers, she’s inside my head as the heroines of The Scroll – all three generations of them!

Cote de Pablo – as in NCIS, she plays a nice Jewish girl who ends up in an unexpected role…and thanks to this casting coup in The Dovekeepers, she’s inside my head as the heroines of The Scroll – all three generations of them!

A Cup of Hope on the Seder Table

As first published at Jerusalem Perspective Online

The decades have not dimmed the memory of my parents’ Seder table back in Trenton, New Jersey. It was laden with traditional family favorites, and, more importantly, with the enduring symbols of commemoration. We each had our own little bowl to hold the salt water symbolizing our tears when we were slaves. The parsley was at the ready for dipping into the salt water, symbolizing the new life and joy of our springtime festival of freedom. And of course there was the all-important Seder plate, each object representing an element of the immortal saga. The full wine cup of Elijah was there, too, waiting for the redemptive door to open. My mother added to the symbolism with her signature, green-in-honor-of-spring Passover Jello-and-pineapple ring.

Just under a week ago,  in our home in the mountains of Judah, at my own family’s Passover table, we had all of those, along with a new symbol of which my mother would certainly have approved: Next to Elijah’s cup we set another goblet—brimming with water—Miriam’s cup. I’m glad my granddaughters, and the many families around the world who mark this new custom, will grow up with Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, “singing unto them” more powerfully than ever before.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous well as the sages pictured it. At left is Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17; Num. 26:46), another scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend.  Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

What is Miriam’s connection to water? We remember her as “prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron,” timbrel in hand, leading the women in praise song and dance at the shores of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20–21).  But there’s much more. The medieval commentator Rashi, explaining Psalm 110:7, interpreted her name as having two parts: mar, a Hebrew word for “bitterness,” plus the Hebrew word for “sea,” yam.  In fact, those are the two elements that bookend the drama of Miriam’s early life, from the bitterness of the slavery into which she was born, to the shores of the Red Sea where she emerges as a public leader, part of a team, as the prophet Micah (6:4) reminds us.

Miriam was a prophet, says Exod. 15:20—the first woman in the Bible to receive this title. The Bible does not tell us what she prophesied, but the ancient sages are there, as always, to fill in the blanks. The two midwives, Puah and Shifra (Exod. 1:15), they said, were none other than Jochebed, Miriam’s mother, and her five-year-old (!) daughter. In this imaginary telling, Pharaoh summons Miriam and Jochebed to his palace to deliver his diabolical edict—to kill the Hebrew baby boys they had delivered. The world’s most defiant toddler then stamped her foot (as I picture it) and warned the Egyptian ruler: “Woe to this man because of his evil deeds when God is finished with him.”

Miriam's well Miriam before Pharoah

A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

Further evidence of Miriam’s prophetic skills comes from the ancient commentary on Exodus, Exodus Rabbah, which teaches that when the Israelites realized Pharaoh’s plot, “many men decided to remain separate from their wives.” But young Miriam predicted: “a son will be born to my father and my mother at this time who will save the People of Israel from the hand of Egypt.” Persuaded by the sheer power of their daughter’s words, Jochebed returned to her husband Amram enthroned as a queen. She gave birth to a son, “and…the house was filled with a great light like the sun and the moon at their rising.”

Despite her leadership status, in fact, no doubt because of it, the Bible highlights an incident revealing a character flaw. Numbers 12:1-2 finds Miriam and Aaron apparently gossiping about their Cushite sister-in-law and maligning big brother Moses. Miriam bears the brunt of the punishment, struck with leprosy.

However, the same ancient sources who took Miriam to task and accused women in general of being prone to idle talk, also gave us Miriam’s most enduring, positive association, which comes to her only in death. Scripture speaks of Moses’ death and unmarked grave on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1-2, 6). As for Aaron, Numbers 20:29 says the whole house of Israel wept for him and mourned him for 30 days. But when it comes to the third member of the triumvirate, there is only the date, “the first month,” and the place, Kadesh (Num. 20:1).

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

But then, it is the very next verse that brought Miriam’s cup to our Seder table. The sages who interpreted Scripture were all about connections, and the fact that the death of Miriam is immediately followed by an assembly, not of mourning but of “striving” (Num. 20:3), was simply too good to leave alone.

In answer to the people’s outcry, God tells Moses to strike a rock, bringing water gushing forth (Num. 20:8-12). The Ethics of the Fathers speaks of this well as one of ten amazing sights created on the eve of the first Sabbath after creation—on a par with the rainbow after the great flood, manna, and Moses’ miraculous staff (Ethics of the Fathers  5, 6). In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Jose noted that the well, like other miraculous gifts, was given out of merit for the three wilderness leaders (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a). Because Miriam’s most memorable deeds involved water—saving Moses and leading the women in praise song and dance next to water—the people felt the lack of water most powerfully when she died. And so, in her honor, God caused the well, which had mysteriously disappeared, to return. When the head of each tribe would strike the rock, water would emerge in a stream leading to that tribe’s encampment. Wherever the tribes encamped, there the well would be.

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg,

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

The legend of Miriam’s well is still with us. Christian pilgrims crossing the Sea of Galilee spot many boats making the crossing with them, pausing mid-lake just like they do. But passengers on other decks are sometimes pilgrims of another faith—their dress clearly identifying them as Orthodox Jews. They are there waiting for a spring—none other than Miriam’s well, which they believe ended up here—to bubble up from the depths of the lake, as it intermittently does, as a sign of God’s faithfulness and healing power.

A 2012 film about reconnecting and renewal bears the name of the fictional town that is its backdrop:  “Hope Springs.” That play on words was not accidental. Hope springs eternal, Alexander Pope said. The cleansing and quenching of our spiritual thirst, the promise of new growth nourished by winter rains of blessing in the Holy Land, are all contained in “Miriam’s cup.”

Women dance, rarely, elsewhere in the Bible (1 Sam. 18:6; Judg. 11:34; 21:21; Ps. 68:25). But it is Miriam who is depicted by the Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, as dancing in Heaven. Miriam’s dance was unique, the very embodiment of praise and hope, which continues to promise that wherever we set our Seder table, in the words of the ancients, “sustenance may be granted for the sake of one individual.”

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

My thanks to the artist Riki Rothenberg (rikiro.art@gmail.com) for her insights about Miriam and for her evocative painting of the prophetess, details of which grace this article.

Lifeline from the Grave

Our recent Purim celebration drew my thoughts to that other biblical woman with a warning for an ancient king: Hulda, teacher and prophetess. This is the story of her tomb, which she shares with two alter-egos from across the religious/ethnic divide.

“Don’t’ worry,” the service person who gave me my new cellphone told me. “All your numbers are in there.” A prophetess, she wasn’t: Virtually all of them had evaporated. Among the few that remained: my shorthand listing of  “Mhmd Hulda’s  tomb crtker.” Whew! That meant I could still call Hulda’s tomb, and Hulda’s tomb could call me back to confirm. Well, not in the creepy sense, like poor Elva Keen in Twilight Zone’s 1964 segment, “Night Call.”

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The phone number from the grave in this case belongs to Mohammed, the guard who’s got the key to Hulda’s tomb. You can usually find him at the Dome of the Ascension, the venerable Christian holy place next door, now abutted by a mosque. In fact, that’s part of what I want to share with you here: Try running down the list of sites in the Holy Land that have been or are venerated by the believers of one religion – or sect of the same religion – and are now zealously guarded by another. It’s quite a good “theory of everything” when it comes down to grasping the complexities of our relationship across the ethnic/religious divide. At the end of this article is a partial list of these sites – please feel free to add to it! But back to the prophetess.

Who was Hulda?

 A time of major regime change in the Fertile Crescent finds King Josiah purging the land of Idol worship. A “scroll of the teaching” has been found; the king wants to know what’s in it. The star  prophet of the time, Jeremiah, is apparently out of town, but Hulda, wife of Shallum son of Hope (Tikvah), one of the king’s courtiers (and, the sages say, Jeremiah’s cousin), is available and brought to court.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda, whom the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi gleans from the Bible was a teacher, gives Josiah some really bad news for the nation and then softens the blow with some hope for him personally – albeit “from the grave” (2 Kings 22:14–20;  2 Chron. 34: 22–28).

Hulda’s tomb may have been located within Jerusalem at one point and later removed, for biblical reasons. In any case, by the Middle Ages, Jewish pilgrims write that they visited Hulda’s tomb at the top of the Mount of Olives – apparently the same place you’ll find it if you call Mohammed the guard for an appointment. Rabbi Moshe Basulo, who visited Jerusalem in 1522, writes that the tomb was guarded by a Muslim, whom one would pay for oil to light a memorial lamp. Some things never change (or almost never; nowadays there’s no lamp-lighting).

Not everyone was enthusiastic about visits to Hulda’s tomb. In the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Yehosaf Schartz wrote: “And now the hearer will hear and the viewer will see a wondrous thing: How a big mistake, a lie and a deceit and everything is in the hands of the masses of our people to say and believe that there is the grave of Hulda the Prophetess…and now, dear reader. Does the knowledgeable and understanding heart not pain over this thing that Israel goes to worship at a foreign tomb, saying that it is the tomb of the righteous woman Hulda the Prophetess, may we be protected through her.”*

Now that’s what I call a party-pooper.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an undated, unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. The entrance to the tomb can barely be seen here, bottom right.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. Tomb entrance barely visible bottom right.

Move over Dr. Atkins, here comes the Hulda Diet

When you visit the tomb, you’ll descend a steep flight of stone stairs to the cenotaph – the tomb marker – and see that it’s in a niche up against a stone wall. An ancient tradition says that if you could walk all the way around the tomb, you’d earn a special blessing.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Obviously the larger you are, the harder this is. Zev Vilnay writes that the guard at the tomb in his day told him:  how “he once saw with his own eyes how an overweight woman tried to go around the tomb and reached a point where she could go neither backward or forward. She cried out ‘Mother Hulda, save me.’ Immediately she was relieved and went around the tomb with no difficulty. That is a sign that the great righteous woman was in her place in Paradise and Allah knows the truth.”**

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

St. Pelagia

To Christians, this very same tomb is occupied by St. Pelagia, a fifth-century actress and singer from Antioch known for her great beauty. Unfortunately, back in the day, that profession would get you ousted from any self-respecting salon and you’d have to endure a variety of epithets I’ll leave to your imagination. In any case, Pelagia, at the behest of her bishop, St. Nonnus, left her old life behind, disguised herself as a man and came to Jerusalem where she lived alone in a monastic cell and died in 457 CE.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Guess what? the squeezing tradition made it across the religious divide: Christian visitors paying their respects to St. Pelagia wrote that managing to circumnavigate even the narrow back of the tomb would get you a ticket to Paradise. So here’s another quiz question for readers steeped in Jerusalem lore: Name two other places where squeezing through a narrow place ensures you Paradise (answer at the end).

A righteous Muslim woman remembered

In Muslim tradition, this is the tomb of Sit’ Raba’a al-Aduwiyyeh. She was born a slave in Basra, Iraq, and according to the story, when her master saw a golden aura surrounding her as she prayed, he decided to free her. She rose to fame as a sufi, a mystic in the Islamic tradition, and is said to have written love poetry to God, whom she called “my hope, my tranquility, my joy.” *** She died in 815 CE. (A mosque by that name hit the news during the Egyptian uprising against Mohammed Mursi, when his supporters took shelter there. But I digress. Or not.)

Husband Arik (who’s finally getting well, we hope) has a new home-visit nurse, a young man named Jihad, who is a born-and-bred Jerusalemite. Jihad told me he’s never been to the tomb, but he is very familiar from his childhood with the stories of Sit’ Raba’a as a healer and a performer of good deeds. Jihad and I discussed the apparent proliferation of Sit’ Raba’a tombs throughout the Arab world, and, as he put away the bandages and washed up after treating Arik, we agreed that this is because the world is hungry for righteousness.

So where can the story of Hulda’s tomb take us? The Bible says no one knows Moses’ burial site (Deut. 34:6–7), ostensibly, we are taught, so it would not become a focus of worship. The following legend regarding that issue might give us a path: “The Roman emperor even sent two army units, charging them:  “Go and see where Moses is buried.”  They went and stood up above and saw it down below; then they went down below and saw it above.  So, they split up, half above and have below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.  Hence it is said, ‘no one knows his burial place'” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 357).

There are ardent seekers of righteousness and justice among all humanity. We  split, splice, slice and dice ourselves into our own tiny human slots (or allow it to be done to us); but Hulda’s tomb might show we just can’t help having much more in common than we sometimes realize. So let’s not forget the “hope” in Hulda’s name.

I like to tell the story you’ve reading here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

I like to tell the story you read here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

Two other narrow places the faithful try to squeeze through for miracles: The columns under the shrine of the hair of the prophet’s beard inside the Dome of the Rock, and Mary’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley. Can you add any?

Can you add to this list of sites that “share sanctity.”  Church of the Ascension; Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Church of the Nativity; Dome of the Rock; Golden Gate; King David’s Tomb; Rachel’s Tomb; Room of the Last Supper; Samuel’s Tomb; Tomb of Joshua; Tomb of the Patriarchs; Tomb of the Prophets; Tomb of Dan. 

Read more about Hulda in Women at the Time of the Bible.

*Zev Vilnay 1972, The Old City, Vol. 3 p. 370.

** Ibid., p. 369.

*** http://amudanan.co.il/#!wiki=P27399 Hulda’s Tomb (Hebrew).

Of Almonds and Analgesics

 

 

Almond blossoms in my neighborhood of Har Adar

Almond blossoms in my neighborhood of Har Adar.

What a briefly blossoming biblical tree can teach us about a much-needed dose of hope.

Time to ‘fess up about what I’ve been hiding in my how-are-you-we-are-fine emails these past months: Husband Arik’s winter has been a bit on the Jobian side. Alright, I exaggerate; there have been no fatalities, and I suppose it compares favorably with what goes on in the lives of some of you, or of people who sat beside us in the Sha’are Zedek emergency room last week, or in any of the other ERs we’ve visited over the past months. And granted also, there has been no divine pride in righteousness, no diabolical bargains over Arik…that we know of.

The proverbial Sabeans (Job 1:15) had already taken away quite a bit away from Arik back in 1973 when he first became a wounded warrior confined to a wheelchair. Over the years he’s had his challenges, but in May came the car that rammed into his car, the broken bones, his mother’s difficult recovery, the pressure sore. Now, just as that has begun to heal, came the next travail. That’s the one that made me think of Job. No dung heap, no potsherds for the itching, burning, rip-roaring pain, but yet of all things, at all times…shingles. In the head.

Let’s all open our Bibles to Job Chapter 3.

Get it?

After the antibiotics, the first pain specialist gave Arik intravenous lidocaine and then sent us off to a special pharmacy for a big fat bottle of Methadone. On it the pharmacist hath inscribed: “50 ccs, 1 x 3.” Two days later I called the specialist to tell him Arik was very, very sleepy. “WHAT?!!” Nurse Ratchett yelled at me over the phone. “Not three times a day…three times a day as NEEDED.”

“But that’s not what it says,” I protested weakly.

She put the doctor right on the phone. Uh oh.

Doctor: “WHAT? 50 ccs? I said UP TO 50 ccs. And you didn’t take the patch [from the previous attempt at pain control] off? I TOLD you to take the patch off.”

Oh.

A lot of loving attention by our faithful family physician, another week, and another specialist, different meds, a different protocol, and the pain has finally being brought under control…hopefully.

Just in time for the blossoming of the almond tree.

“Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said: I see a rod of an almond tree… Then said the LORD unto me: ‘Thou hast well seen; for I watch over My word to perform it” (Jer. 1:11).

In Hebrew,  almond is shaked, which comes from a root word meaning diligence. Now that you know this, you can appreciate the prophet’s play on words. The almond is our version of the groundhog, ever on the watch for the passing of winter so it can announce that spring is on the way, which it does by being the first fruit tree to bloom, painting the hillsides of Judea and Galilee in pink and cream.

It’s the almond pit that we find so delicious, unlike its relatives, the peach and the plum – where it’s the surrounding fruit we like. But by the way, the fruit of the immature almond – tart and fuzzy, dipped in salt – is an acquired taste that I first learned about after moving to Israel. Deliciously bitter. Go figure.

In Numbers 17, the almond appears as a symbol of vigor. That’s because Moses created staffs for each tribal leader and planted them at the entrance to the Tabernacle, but only Aaron’s staff budded and produced almonds, within 24 hours yet. Ecclesiastes takes the almond to another place entirely, using the whiteness of its flowers to symbolize the whitening hair of old age: “When men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets, when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along… (Eccles. 12:5).

The sages of the Talmud mention the many benefits of the almond (which botanists tell us originated in Central Asia, spread to India and eventually to the Middle East) including a delicious paste, relish and oil. The first-century physician Discorides mentions almond oil and sap as a treatment for stomach pain, headache and burns.  The fifth-century doctor Assaf Ben Brachiyahu (“Harofeh”) recommended almond oil to strengthen the heart, for breathing problems and kidney stones. And Prof. Ephraim Lev of the University of Haifa tells us that in 12th-century Jerusalem physicians used an almond and sugar concoction as a medication.

But back in the realm of symbolism, the biblical “watchfulness” of the shaked has its dark side, too. Daniel 9:14 uses the same word to tell us that God “watches upon the evil” – as a way of warning us that sin will be punished.

Let’s ask Job what he thinks of that one, shall we?

Or not.

Instead, as we all anticipate an end to our bitter days, whatever form they may take, I hope we can find in the early flowering of the almond, as Jeremiah did, an encouraging symbol joy and renewed strength that comes with spring: “And it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them, to destroy and to afflict…so will I watch over them to build and to plant” (Jer. 31:28).

 

For more about almonds, see Food at the Time of the Bible, from Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper

An almond grove in Israel. Photo: Nissan Lev-Ran. Pikiwiki Israel.

An almond grove in Israel. Photo: Nissan Lev-Ran. Pikiwiki Israel.

Spiritual Liquid Sunshine: the Blessing of Rain in its Season

It was a lifetime ago, one sunny July day in New Jersey, where I brought our two little Israeli daughters to visit their grandparents, that I made them a little promise: “Tomorrow, girls, we’ll go to the beach if it doesn’t rain.” I’ll never forget the quizzical look they both gave me. “What do you mean, if it doesn’t rain. It won’t rain, mama, it’s summer!”

That’s what I get (among other things) for raising children in the Holy Land. In Israel there might be only one thing that’s guaranteed – it will never rain in July. Or August, or June. Okay, you get the idea. In fact, for about eight months of the year, basically, not a drop.

Then comes the rainy season, now upon us here in the Holy Land. This all-important season is framed by two important meteorological/spiritual events: the “former rains” in the fall and the “latter rains” in the spring (Joel 2:23).  Then, dry again until the fall. That powerful cycle has shaped virtually every aspect of our Jewish faith and culture, as well as that of our desert-born or nurtured sister faiths, for thousands of years and to this day.

Oh, how we longed for water in the wilderness (Ex. 17:1-2; Num. 20:2). Scripture turned that longing into the ultimate spiritual metaphor – for joy and salvation (Isaiah 12:3) eternal life (John 4: 7-14), justice (Amos 5:24), wisdom (Proverbs 20:5), and yes, sorrow (Lam. 3:48) and God’s wrath (Hosea 5:10) as well.

Oleg Jacob and Rachel at the Well 2

Rachel and Jacob at the well. Artist: Oleg Trabish. Courtesy of Palpnot.

It is at the well is where we often find the women of the Bible – drawing water for home and family as one of their many daily tasks. That made cisterns and springs just about the most important meeting place in any human habitation and as such – the backdrop for some unforgettable biblical encounters. Abraham’s servant deemed Rebecca to be “the one” for Isaac when he saw the energy and strength she put into her well-side work (Gen. 24:14–21) ; It was the best place for Jacob to show how his body-building skills had paid off (Gen. 29:10); Moses meets his future wife Zipporah by the well after fighting off rival water-seeking shepherds (Ex. 2. 16-20) And our ancient sages saw the juxtaposition of the death of Moses’ sister in the wilderness and Israelite clamoring for water (Num. 20: 1–2)  as the reason for the appearance of a miraculous spring.  And by the way, forever after, “Miriam’s well,” according to legend, appeared whenever her people needed her special brand of sustenance (eventually plunking, just as miraculously, into the Sea of Galilee where if you watch and wait, you can see it bubbling up to this day).

 

 

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Water quenches, cleanses, heals, revives and purifies – that was an axiom of our biblical ancestors’ lives. And from there, it’s just a short leap of human understanding to making water the ultimate symbol for spiritual renewal, and for life itself.

 

I hope you’ll find pleasure in the slide show, “Waters of Joy” that I prepared, which includes photos of my favorite Holy Land springs, rivers and waterfalls, accompanied by biblical verses and is set to part of Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 2 in D.

 

Here’s wishing us all rains of blessing in 2017, and may we all draw strength from our deepest wellsprings.

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of a series of books about daily life in the Bible. Her first historical novel, The Scroll  is available in paperback from Koren Publishers .